Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's Makes It Yours?

I was thinking (for reasons no deeper than it popped into my head and I decided to pursue it) about what makes one GM's 'style' or approach different from another. When you've played in a game I've run, for example, how do you know you were in a Barking AlienTM session/campaign? Well, other than the fact that I was there and you could see me and...I digress. What makes my games 'special'? Top five answers are on the board. Survey says...

1) I'm out to challenge you, not 'get' you

If you aren't threatened with character death, bodily harm or the loss of your PC's possessions the game won't seem fulfilling and you won't feel like you triumphed when you win. Often there isn't a feeling of accomplishment if there isn't a threat of failure. At the same time, I run character and story driven games often based on subjects (Superheroes, Star Trek, Fairy Tales) where main character death is rare. Over time I've balanced this by always remembering that the PCs are the stars of the show but on occasion even big stars can't renegotiate their contracts.

2) If you (the player) bothered to mention it, I'll bother to include it

If a player tells me he really likes games with traps, I will put traps in the game here and there. If a player says his character is a member of a mysterious tribe from the Southern Jungles, most NPCs won't recognize his nationality or at best, may be be unfamiliar with it. If the group doesn't really get into political intrigue, I don't focus my campaign on nobles houses and trade alliances. This simple self-inflicted ruling is probably the single thing that makes me a popular GM in my circles. Players like to have a voice and are happy when the GM listens.

3) The answer is never no but it isn't always yes

If the players come up with a crazy, power stunt, barely rational plan to do something, I will never say they can't try it. I will also never say it is guaranteed to work. I will assign a difficulty and various modifiers based on the plausibilty defined by the genre and setting, how well thought out the plan is, how cool it sounds (based on how it would look on screen/in a comic book/animated by Gainax or GONZO, etc.), whether the situation has developed to the point where its going to be pretty hard to succeed regardless and numerous other factors. Then I make them roll. Often, depending on the idea, the scenario and the system, even if they fail or succeed, side effects may land in their favor or turn against them.

4) Something will explode

Usually something large. It is likely to self-destruct or overload and the outcome is usually avoidable but realized too late. Just this past year a Seperatist Cruiser, an ancient temple caught between cursed undead and local elemental forces and all of time and space blew the hell up in one game or another. Every campaign features, at minimum, one near-world shattering kaboom.

5) If I can't make you scream I'll make you laugh

I like my games to be memorable. If for some reason I'm having an off day and the 'Wow!' and 'Holy Crap!' factors are lower than normal, I'm not above switching gears and making this session a comedy episode. Most of my Star Trek sessions might be Journey to Babel or City on the Edge of Forever but every once in a while we need a Trouble with Tribbles to break the tension.

Do I manage to do all of these things in every session of every game I run? Maybe...I try to. These are the five key elements that are always on my mind when GMing. These things define my game style. To me the pursuit of the perfect game is one in which, a few weeks after a session, one of my players says,

"Damn that battle with the Brainiac/War World Merged Entity was tough. I was sure we were gonna buy it when the thing took out Guy Gardner and Captain Marvel and than injured three of the PCs with one blast. It was so cool that Captain Atom showed up to assist by draining the Entity's energy reserves. Leonard and I were just saying how much we both like Captain Atom. Oh, than we used this combination of Air Wave's ability to scramble computer systems and Warborn's physical attacks on the Brainiac CPU to disable him. Warborn? Oh that's Jack's character. In the end War World-iac blew up, destroying all his drone robots but sending Capt. Atom who-knows-where! Damn, the look on the Atom's face, I can just imagine it. Nearly laughed soda through my nose."*

Barking Alien

*That all sorta happened. Sort of. Actually the above passage is how it should've gone but it didn't. Why? Well, because sometimes I don't hit all five key elements. More on that next time...


  1. Adam, longtime listener and first time poster. I had a response to this that go so long it turned into my own blog post. Thanks for the inspiration today.


  2. Great post James and I'm glad I could inspire you. Please visit as often as you like. My airlock is always open (which could explain the high rate of crew deaths do to exposure to the vacuum of space...).

  3. That was a pretty amazing post, speaking as a player from many of your games.I can honestly say I didn't know there weren't any limitations on rpg'ing. A lesson which both you and Allen made completely aware of. Reading this has actually made me re-think how I've run games in the past and how I may run then in the future. And yeah, lol'ing at the open airlock comment.

  4. I think its kind of curious that, even though I don't like to play nearly as much as I like to GM, I often think of the game from the player's point of view.

    Often I see players in other games that are discouraged because they feel like they never had a chance (hence trait 1), they don't feel like they get to contribute to the world building (hence trait 2) and that their ideas don't matter if they can't find the 'right' way to do something (hence trait 3). Trait 4 is simply an Adam thing from too many years of reading comics, watching Anime and reruns of the Muppet Show.

    Trait 5 I may have to address in a seperate post as it seems the most misunderstood and it wouldn't be the first time. Those not involved in my games think I only run comical, silly games as they don't see how comedy can be applied to 'serious' gaming. They also don't get (and I can't blame them) how serious our comedic campaigns have been (case in point Ghostbusters/InSpectres which had some downright disturbing, sad and scary moments).

  5. "Every campaign features, at minimum, one near-world shattering kaboom."

    So that means you've blown up how many planets close to the one you're on?

  6. Close to the one I'm on?

    Do you mean, how often have we blown up Mars or Venus or how often have we blow up a planet adjacent to the one we were occupying at the time?

    I only recall us destroying Mars once. If I'm not mistaken it didn't blow up, it was sent into an alternate reality.

    Most of our planetary and system wide explosion occured while we were in starships in orbit or nearby. The exact number of destroyed planets is unknown but a good estimate is about a dozen since 1984.

    You thought I was kidding. I wasn't. AD game = Stuff blowing up.


  7. "You thought I was kidding. I wasn't."

    Nah, I was simply making a pun about "Near-world".